The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s second concert of its season, “Diva Power,” with guest artist Ann Hampton Callaway, was 15 years in the making. If the energy of the performers involved and the reaction of the audience was any indication, it was well worth the wait.
The concert opened with the well-known swing tune, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” featuring a full big band within the normal Philharmonic orchestra, which literally blew the top off Judson Erne Auditorium. With driving percussion and a great brass section, the piece provided a rousing welcome to the featured Callaway, who joined the orchestra for the standard, “With a Song in My Heart,” made popular by Jane Froman and Doris Day.
There were a few production issues during the number due to the wall of sound produced by the big band and its frequent use of instrumental soloists as well as some feedback problems with Callaway’s microphone. But she proved unflappable afterwards as she engaged the audience in a delightful, insightful and frequently humorous repartee which continued throughout the evening.
She imitated various artists, including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, to help set up her next piece, the Ella Fitzgerald hit “How High the Moon,” featuring a scat conversation between Callaway and saxophonist Tom Walsh, one of many outstanding soloists in the big band.
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One of the most outstanding moments of the evening was Callaway’s rendition of the Judy Garland standard “Over the Rainbow.” Beginning with the not-so-frequently performed verse, the beautifully underscored and balanced accompaniment allowed Callaway to demonstrate her flawless breath control and extensive range. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium as she teamed with her musically sensitive pianist, Reggie Thomas, to make the song her own to the point where the audience hesitated to applaud so as not to miss a single note of her exquisite performance.
She followed with a string of songs of different musical styles — “Lullaby of Birdland,” Both Sides Now,” “Lover Come Back to Me” — culminating with the first act finale, “Blues in the Night,” made popular by Rosemary Clooney but performed by Callaway in her own particular style, enthusiastically acknowledged by the sustained applause of the audience.
The second act opened with two more standards by Callaway, “That Old Black Magic” and “At Last,” again showcasing her improvisational abilities and wide dynamic and emotional range. Leaving the stage, she turned the program over to conductor David Bowden and her instrumental colleagues From this point on in the concert, they really shined.
The spirited “Manteca” featured the big band and some timely placed vocals by regulars of the orchestra.
With Callaway returning, the string section performed beautifully under the baton of Bowden in their supporting role on “Just in Time,” “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” and a relatively unfamiliar tune, “I’ve Dreamed of You,” written by Callaway for Barbra Streisand and sung by Streisand at her own wedding reception.
Again, the audience was mesmerized by Callaway’s attention to detail and her beautiful diction with which she embraced and caressed each consonant, giving an emotionally charged yet extremely subtle musical performance.
Another highlight of the concert came as Callaway created a “Columbus, Indiana, Love Song” on the spot. Utilizing characters and plot developments shouted out by members of the audience, she composed a song with the help of drummer Steve Hanna and bass player Hannah Marks and brought cheers and laughter from the audience. It was a testament to the creative genius of Callaway and the musical sophistication of Hanna and Marks.
The concert quickly moved to its conclusion with all of the musical forces brought back into play on the finale, “People/Being Alive.” A rousing standing ovation provided the appropriate exclamation point to a wonderful evening showcasing the power of this diva’s performance.
This Johnson Distinguished Guest Artist Program featuring the incredible musical talents of Callaway will long be remembered as a shining star moment in the 2016-17 Columbus Indiana Philharmonic season.
J. Kevin Butler is a graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was a high school choral director for more than 20 years. He is currently director of music for the First United Methodist Church of Columbus.